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The Power of Transposition

Updated: Jul 11, 2021

When I was taking music lessons in my youth, I learned how to transpose music in theory class. We would take a short piece in D major and transpose it into A major. It was kind of fun… theoretically kind of fun. When it came to playing the piano, I was never asked to transpose and therefore didn’t develop the skill.

Fast forward a decade or two. I’m sitting in a masterclass given by the great Fred Hersch. Fred Hersch came to jazz late in life (around age 19). He was raised in the classical tradition and excelled at piano. After he became well known in the jazz world, he still performed classical concertos with major orchestras.

I was really interested in jazz but didn’t have a clue where to start. I wanted to learn to play from jazz charts (also known as lead sheets) but I sounded so rudimentary and clunky when I tried. Many of us in the masterclass felt the same way and we peppered Fred Hersch many questions.

He talked about how his fingers were orchestras and which ones were the soloist and which ones held the harmony and he talked about being able to play a jazz chart in more than one key to get to know it better… transposition. At this point I realized he had married the practical world of playing the piano with the theoretical world. He was so comfortable transposing; he’d used it to practice for a recent performance of a Mozart Concerto.

He told us there was a passage that just wasn’t sticking in his memory, so he TRANSPOSED IT INTO 6 KEYS, and then it was fine. I couldn’t imagine that! Yes, I could have painstakingly written it out and then read my transposition, but he didn’t do that. With a glance he could see the chord structure of the passage and with his jazz tools instantly transposed it!

Since that day I have learned to think like a jazz player and I have tried his practice technique of transposing a classical passage into 3 keys or 6 keys, and it works! When I'm teaching transposition on the piano to my students, I can see a lightbulb going off and they are hooked. The next lesson is a lot of fun as they gleefully play the same piece in several keys.

The best way to introduce transposition at the keys is to start with a familiar tune with a simple chord structure. As an example, I created a short video series playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in 12 keys. I’m posting them on Instagram and Facebook over the next few weeks.

Transposition is liberating and feels like a practice superpower!


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